Imagine for a moment that your life starts now. All that has preceded, your family, friends, education, experiences, they simply aren’t there anymore. You’ve experienced a complete system reboot and the hard drive has been wiped clean.
Are you still impassioned about the things that previously stirred your soul? Were you meant to do what you were doing, be with who you were with? Or would this clean slate entail a complete do over — a reset of a life that had gone in some, if not all, the wrong directions? Sure, for most of us these questions are rhetorical, suitable for bandying about with friends while sipping wine and eating cheese…
…for Chef Kurt Metzger of Kitchen 4140, it is his reality. After being rear-ended in an auto accident and suffering severe retrograde amnesia about 4 years ago, Chef Kurt has had to re-learn everything.
The question seems to be, what was he to re-learn? With no memory of his former life, family, wife or profession, this was no movie or fairy tale. The path back to full functionality would be brutal, especially given Chef’s well known status prior to the accident as a chef and restaurateur. How does one wake up every morning and look in the mirror at an unrecognized face, live in a home with a wife you don’t know, meet and speak with people on a personal and professional level who all know and admire you and yet have no basis for conversing with them, no memory of ever having known them?
Slowly, it would seem, at first…
Starting out with short, daily 5-10 minute visits to their restaurant as soon as he was able to after the accident, Chef found that soon it seemed as though he and his wife, Syrisa, were spending almost every waking moment at 4140. After about eight months, Chef jested that they spent so much time there, they should just buy the place. By his account, that is the first time after the accident that Syrisa broke down and cried. Up to that point, she had been his rock – the sole, immoveable, Gibraltar sized object against which Chef Kurt could lean during his journey back to some semblance of normalcy.
While the memory may have been wiped, apparently art, heart, soul, passion and energy reside in a completely different reservoir. Chef was soon back up to full speed, memory loss aside. In the picture here, Chef is standing in his Wine Room, built in a two week span shortly after his return to the helm of his restaurant, seating up to 30 people and recently the site of Chef’s “Summer Crush” charity dinner event benefiting at-risk children and the Touissant Academy.
This view out of the front door of the restaurant shows the comfortable patio. Musician Anthony Garcia serenaded us throughout the evening with gorgeous classical, flamenco (and did I hear some Brazilian in there?) tunes. The six tower gardens behind Anthony were recently harvested, but will soon be replanted and dedicated to herbs that are used in the kitchen such as rosemary, sage, basil and mint,
This garden and others were instrumental in the Chef’s return to the kitchen. He spent most of his waking hours during his recovery period shoving herbs, vegetables and all manner of ingredients into his mouth, re-learning the flavors, profiles and combinations that he would need to begin creating again.
Farm to Table doesn’t get any fresher than this. The outdoor patio of the restaurant is enveloped by the planter boxes and herb towers that provide about 45% of the restaurant’s produce. Chef Kurt and his cooks spend time daily tending and harvesting in the garden. This also provides an area for the youth he brings in from the Touissant Academy to help out around the restaurant.
The dining room at Kitchen 4140 is eclectic. It has a warm, inviting feel, rustic and industrial overtones with planks, steel and natural wood applied in all the right places, but with a bit of a mid-century modern flair and casual elegance that all combine to say, “Welcome”.
Part of Chef’s re-learning process was to completely dismantle and reassemble his kitchen — in one night. This was an attempt to understand the equipment he had, what it did and why it was there. Looking back from today, Chef realizes that the loss of his past also meant freedom from the shackles of convention, the liberty to do things in whichever way seemed right without worrying about all the things he had previously learned were wrong, the sprouting of wings with which he could soar beyond what he had been limited to due to his education, training and experience.
With his artistic side fully intact, whether by instinct or reflex, Chef began the new chapter of his life, serving elevated comfort food in a casual fine dining atmosphere.
Every table is adorned with a small mason jar of these pistachios. They are roasted in the oven with Meyer lemon, curry, cumin, jerk seasoning rub and probably a few other ingredients. It’s not that I couldn’t find out what the additional ingredients were. Chef and our server (who also happened to be the Beverage Director and Sommelier), John Bruhin, were very open about the ingredients and processes used to prepare the evening’s meal.
On a side note — that is what why I’m doing this foodie blogging thing. Being a foodie is really no fun if you’ve got to play the guessing game about everything you eat. Understanding the ingredients, the sources, the processing, the chefs, the cooks and the industry in general are really, in my humble (or not) opinion, what the foodie movement should be about. It is the education and the deep understanding of our food, where it comes from and who’s touching it that will to allow chefs, restaurants, farms and fishermen to continue feeding us in the best possible way with the best possible ingredients.
Anyway, back to the pistachios. My tongue was not quite long enough to reach the bottom of the jar so as to get every last speck of seasoning…
We started the evening off with the Pork Belly and perfectly toasted Brussel Sprouts. But the incredible, edible egg yolk confit on top of the pork belly stole my heart, mind and soul. It is prepared by first being stabilized in room temperature water and vinegar, then cured with salt and sugar and chilled to create a slighty gelatinous, silky smooth, ever so slightly sweet and tart concoction the likes of which I would trample my children to get another bite of. Combined with the savory moistness of the pork belly and the toasted, pleasant bitterness of the brussels, I wasn’t sure things could get much better on this evening.
I was wrong. The asparagus appetizer was the epitome of what this restaurant is about. Simple ingredients taken to another level. With the addition of the poached egg, manchego cheese, candied bacon and truffle oil, this is a dish that you would imagine your Mom made pretty good, but then you went and had dinner at your best friend’s house and found out his mom made it better.
Dee was in the mood for beets and who am I to tell my Love no. I mean, I like fresh beets, but the last month or so, I’ve not been much into salads. But, Mama knows best. The red and white beets were served slightly warmed on a fresh spinach salad with some creamy goat cheese crumbles. They were fresh with a bit of tooth and married perfectly with the greens and cheese.
Yet, once again, a seemingly simple ingredient prepared with simple techniques put some extra Wow! onto the plate. The crispy prosciutto was like a flavor bomb. Think fried pig’s ear and lean bacon rolled into one. I kindly and humbly allowed Dee to have extra beets and greens whilst I suffered silently through every morsel of the salty, crispy, cured pork product. I’m such a giver…
For those who adore comfort food as we do, there were so many great offerings on the menu it was a challenge to pare them down to anything manageable. But, it’s not often you find a roasted half duck on any menu that isn’t Chinese. Hard to pass this baby up. Once again, it was a simple preparation extremely well executed with crispy potatoes and a small serving of fresh greens. The duck had a nice crispy skin, light seasoning of salt, pepper, chili flakes maybe…Heck, I guess I should have asked, but my Mom always told me it’s not polite to talk with my mouth full — and my mouth was always full with this dish.
One of the evening’s specials was the Buffalo Ribeye with imported chorizo and bone marrow. Look, we all know it – Buffalo on a menu can be gimmicky. It is rarely done properly, often overcooked to the point of dry chewiness and usually not well seasoned. However, nothing about the night’s fare to this point had given me reason to doubt and I figured this would be a great test of what Chef was really doing in the kitchen.
Knowing that buffalo is very lean, I went with John’s recommendation to order it rare, thereby preserving as much of the natural moistness of the meat as possible. Great recommendation – I had never actually considered this before, but it ended up making perfect sense.
The beautifully seasoned steak was simply a rich, wait…RICH version of a normal ribeye. Once again however, it was another component on the plate that not so much stole attention as purposefully re-directed it. The chorizo — I’m going to go all Valley Girl with effusive praise about that stuff. Like, OMG! It was firm. It was rich. It was spicy. It was dunked in the same chile accented red wine reduction as the ribeye so that there was a tinge of sanity tied to the dish. It was a perfect distraction from trying to power through 10 or so ounces of pure red meat. A couple bites of ribeye, a bite of chorizo. A couple of bites of ribeye, a taste of bone marrow. Each new bite was exactly that — a new bite — there’s something to be said for breaking up the monotony of a big plate of meat.
No way were we getting out of there without trying dessert. The coconut bread pudding was seemingly put on the menu just for us. Dee is a coconut freak and my southern bread pudding fetish has been well documented. This softball sized, brioche style loaf had the density of a donut and the airiness of a really, really, really good donut (maybe combined with a croissant) and was the perfect exclamation point on a beautifully executed homestyle meal served with style and poise.
For a guy that’s been, for all intents and purposes, cooking for about 4 years, Chef Kurt is producing interesting, flavorful, elevated comfort food as though his heart has always known what his mind and body should be doing. While others are pushing the boundaries of food preparation with molecular alteration, deconstruction, reinvention and who knows what else, there is a point at which it is more than okay, in fact welcome, to understand that boundaries can be pushed while sticking with the familiar, staying close to home…but maybe down the street a ways, while letting someone else wash the dishes.
Then again, when your entire life becomes about the future, perhaps there are no boundaries…Cheers, my friends!
4140 Morena Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92117